Saffron Walden, as we observed a few weeks ago, sounds like a plucky Victorian heroine who virtuously outgrows her life in a pilchard factory. Perhaps Felix Stowe might be a transatlantic cousin dreamed up by Mark Twain?
Stowe, like Walden, would escape penury, running away from a Bostonian beef jerky company by stowing away on a ship heading for Britain.
After a long and arduous journey, he would catch sight of the approaching Suffolk coastline, and see, to his surprise and joy, a fashionable Victorian seaside resort.
It is the town we now know as Felixstowe. In the years following its peak resort-dom, a period in which its gentle namesake would have died painlessly while surrounded by his doting wife and their 11 pious children, it became a little down-at-heel before, as of the last few years, becoming a little more up-at-heel.
The pier’s been done up – at least the first quarter of it, the rest of it seemingly permanently fenced off – the seafront gardens have been restored, and there are plans for something similar to happen to the drearier stretch of the town’s coastline south of the pier.
So it’s a good time to visit Felixstowe, or at least it might soon be. I went on a Friday morning with a photographer who observed that we must look like a pair of GRU agents on a “sightseeing” mission. “Nyet! Vee haff come all the way from snowy Moscow to see famous show, ‘Throbbin’ Hood’, at the Spa Pavilion Theatre!”
We did not see such a show, but we did get to enjoy a peaceful traipse from the north end of the town’s coastline, which is marked by the sweeping, scenic groyne at Cobbolds Point, to its south.
It was one of those evanescently misty Suffolk mornings and the grey of the sky faded so cleanly into the grey of the sea that it was impossible to make out the horizon. But as we walked past the rows of colourful beach huts, had some chips by the pier and then climbed the unhealthily steep Convalescent Hill, the sun began to burn off the mist.
By the time we reached the end of the coastal walk, which is marked very clearly by the apparition of the mega-cranes and giant container ships of the Port of Felixstowe, the air was clear and hot. It’s on this part of the coastline that you can find the Felixstowe Museum, which is closed at this time of year, and Landguard Fort, an 18th-century fortification that is now open to the public.
Some locals might say that the most interesting exhibition is in fact the vast vessels: many spectators gathered here in January 2015 to watch the CSCL Globe – the world’s biggest ship, which is as long as four football pitches – dock at Felixstowe with about 19,000 shipping containers on board. If any of them contained stowaways, they could have found worse places to disembark.
Five fine reasons to visit Felixstowe
Landguard Fort, a round, stone fortification at the mouth of the river Orwell, only left military hands in 1956. It’s now run by English Heritage and is full of history. Adults £5.50, children £2.50. Open daily.
Ruby’s, on Bent Hill, is modern and friendly, and has a sea view out the back.
They still haven’t rebuilt the tram that used to run from one end of Felixstowe Pier to the other, but a multi-million pound overhaul of the shore end, which includes an amusements arcade and a café/bar, was nevertheless completed last year.
We liked Fish Dish, which is across the road from the entrance to the pier and is known here as the “Posh Chippy”. Fry Magazine named it in their UK-wide top 10 fish and chip restaurants list last year.
You can explore the history of Felixstowe at the local museum… as long as you go on Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in summer, or bank holidays. It closes from November and reopens at Easter.